There was a time when getting an Indian takeaway or ready meal meant only one thing - Chicken Tikka Masala. But although the dish undoubtedly still holds a dear place in our hearts, research shows that consumer needs, tastes and experiences are becoming more varied and adventurous.
This has led to competition between the main and emerging ethnic food sectors and is forcing manufacturers to innovate to keep up with demands.
And as consumers become not only more adventurous but also more knowledgeable, authenticity is high on the agenda, with companies increasing their offerings of regional and named ingredients, says international research group Mintel.
Since 2003 the Indian food market has declined in value and, according to Mintel, may have reached maturity, despite being the fourth most popular cuisine in the UK.
But analysts believe the market is capable of re-invigorating itself by aligning more closely to consumer needs and developing incremental usage occasions something Derby-based S&A Foods did with the re-launch on September 18 of 92 of its Indian dishes in Asda stores.
"Brits today are demanding curries which are 10 times hotter than those being eaten 10 years ago," says Perween Warsi, founder and chief executive of the multi-million pound curry empire. "British people's taste for Indian food has changed dramatically, and now people want much hotter curries with more depth and intensity."
And it's a trend that's set to continue, claims the 'Samosa Queen', as us Brits have become more accustomed to spicy food over the years.
S&A Foods has just launched a new hot version of Asda's Chicken Tikka Masala, in response to demand from Asda customers for curries that pack extra heat. And it has been well received with daily production up by 50% .
Listening to consumers is key, adds company marketing and development director Jeff Nicholas. "When we talked to consumers we learnt that they wanted more choice and variety, but with limited available shelf-space we set about looking at how to improve our ready meals."
And there is plenty of opportunity to do this, he says, from experimenting with new product types like lamb kofta balls, to altering current ones, as was the case for the Chicken Tikka Masala.
"So, although it's not always ground-breaking it is fulfilling the consumer's need to try new tastes," says Nicholas.
"And when you look at how, where and when consumers are using these products, you realise there is a whole raft of opportunity to present products: on the deli counter, in pre-prepared bagged meals, pre-packed meals and pick and mix. Out of that comes lots of opportunity for new product development (NPD) for instance, experimenting with new bags, healthy ranges and spicier foods."
The influence of travel on the ethnic foods market has both broadened consumers' horizons and given authenticity increased importance, as Anita Samtani of Indian food specialist Geeta's Foods explains.
"Authenticity is of paramount importance. According to Mintel, the overall UK market for cooking sauces is worth over £600m, with the premium end driving the market as more sophisticated customers scope out authentic products," says Samtani. "Consumers are more widely travelled and in turn want the same flavours and tastes from that particular country."
With this in mind, Geeta's developed its most recent range the only two-step spice and stir Indian sauces on the market; with two new flavours, Madras and Dopiaza, due to be launched shortly. "Indian food is all about the spice blend, and the two-step sauces are in keeping with Indian cooking traditions, where the spices are used first and the sauce added last." Continuing the authentic feel, most of Geeta's products are based on old family recipes with details of the region and country of origin given on the back of the pack.
Indeed, authenticity has never been so important, adds Warsi, although she says this wasn't always the case. "When I first launched S&A Foods dishes into the supermarkets, the buyers were afraid that the curries were too hot and wanted to take the product off the shelves. I had to persuade them that what they were tasting was authentic Indian food, that the spice levels were right and that people would enjoy them."
Mexican on the up
Although Mintel value the Indian food market at an estimated £490m in 2005, since 2003 sales have been in marginal decline, suggesting that increased competition from other sectors may be taking its toll.
Apart from the Chinese food market, which at £632m has overtaken the Indian ready meals sector, says Mintel, one of the biggest emerging threats to Indian food in the UK is from Mexican cuisine, where sales tipped the £197.6m mark in 2004.
Mexican food just keeps "growing and growing says Paul Veta, marketing director at Mexican food label Discovery Foods. This is partly down to the rise of the wrap and tortilla, particularly in sandwiches.
"Mexican food is predicted to be bigger than Chinese within two years, which is staggering," says Veta. And the reason, he believes, is because people are "bored with Indian and are looking for different flavour hits, which Mexican delivers"
Furthermore, to "eat decent Mexican food you have to eat it at home, not in a restaurant", which is driving the sector's growth. Sales at Discovery Foods are up 20% year-on-year, adds Veta.
It would seem that change is not only afoot within the different sectors of the ethnic foods market, but also in the various categories it contains.
According to Mintel, Indian ready meals are in trouble, particularly within the frozen category, where there has been little NPD compared to the chilled sector, which has benefited from the development of healthy and premium products.
The sides and starters sector, which spans chilled, frozen and ambient categories, has grown 46% since 2000, while accompaniments have grown 10% in the same period both associated with re-creating the restaurant experience. In addition, suggests Nicholas, ethnic food is now associated with satisfying a range of meal occasions, like dinner parties, where a lone ready meal would be insufficient.
Ethnic food manufacturer and distributor Westmill Foods also highlights research from ACNielsen showing a 10% growth in the rice market, driven by microwave rice, which is up 33% year on year.
So, what do manufacturers need to do to grow the ethnic foods market? The answer, says Warsi, is simple. "Innovation is the key. To stay ahead of the market and attract consumers to the product range it's absolutely crucial to keep innovating new dishes, new methods of delivery and new packaging that will excite and inspire the consumer.
"It is the manufacturer's responsibility ?to enliven and create new concepts that ?keep the supermarket shelves exciting and stimulating."